The Culture of the Gun

Back in 1994, police officer Patrick Merrill stopped a man for displaying a false vehicle registration plate. As he later found out, the suspect was wanted for a parole violation—a violation tied to an attempted murder for which he had been convicted.“ He hit me and ran into the woods near where I stopped him,” Merrill recalls.“Once in the woods, he picked up a three-foot-long tree limb and struck me first in the temple and then in the jaw. Needless to say, I did not appreciate his use of potentially deadly force.”
  Merrill ’89, M.A.T. ’90 managed to get the makeshift weapon out of the hands of his assailant. But the blows to his head caused him to begin to lose consciousness, and he collapsed onto the ground. The man continued to beat him with his fists. “As my vision began to fade, I realized that he might very well kill me once I was unconscious. So I drew my handgun and commanded him to stop hitting me.” As the assailant hesitated, Merrill was able to place him in handcuffs, just before he collapsed again.
   “Displaying my sidearm,” he says, “may have saved my life in that situation.” It’s such situations that have caused Merrill, who has served on the police forces in two North Carolina cities, to look to guns less as a social problem than a social necessity. “An armed public is the single best deterrent to crime,” he says. He points out that in the last decade, many states passed laws legalizing the concealed carrying of handguns, and he sees those laws as
contributing to the decrease in the rates of violent crimes. Local police forces, “spread as thin as they are, cannot ensure the safety of citizens,” he says.
And he considers the proliferation of anti-gun legislation disturbing. “These laws, as a whole, seem to be creating two distinct classes of citizens: government-employed and non-government-employed. Those within the government, specifically those who are empowered to enforce laws, will be allowed to own and possess firearms. Those who are not affiliated with the government, specifically those who are less wealthy, will have their civil right to bear arms curtailed.”
   When it hits close to home, gun violence doesn’t always create commitment to a well-armed public. Last fall, a man walked into the outer office of President Nannerl O. Keohane demanding to see the president of Duke University, then whipped out a loaded .32-caliber revolver. Holding three women hostage, he phoned a local TV station to say he was about to blow his brains out. Moments later, Duke police surprised him with pepper spray and a full-body tackle, and the incident was over. “Although prompt action kept anyone from being hurt, the staff members were mighty shaken,” Keohane later wrote in a reflective piece. “The gritty pungence of pepper spray lingered for an hour or two, but we cranked open the windows and did our best to resume the daily round of university life.”
   Although he claimed he intended to kill only himself, the intruder had another thirty-two rounds in his backpack. “My guess is that when he left home that morning, he wasn’t quite sure what he intended,” Keohane said.
   “As if we had learned nothing from the University of Texas massacre in 1966, we somehow keep assuming that educational communities will be exempt from the gun violence that so pervades American society,” she observed. “Like medieval monasteries, universities are supposed to be places of refuge for intellectual exchange and scholarly debate, not shooting galleries.” But the campus is not an isolated contemplative cloister, and she wondered, “How do we defend intellectual freedom against a lone gunman? Arm our secretaries?”
   Long before the specter of the lone gunman, violence was socially pervasive, and perhaps even socially acceptable. In her book Mayhem: Violence as Public Entertainment, Sissela Bok notes that the ancient Romans acted out lethal inclinations not just in the spectacle of the arena, but even in private banquets. Bok quotes an account from the first decade A.D.: “Hosts would invite their friends to dinner not merely for other entertainment, but that they might witness two or three pairs of contestants in a gladiatorial combat; on these occasions, when sated with dining and drink, they called in the gladiators. No sooner did one have his throat cut than the masters applauded with delight at this feat.”
   Now, we’re more likely to applaud professional wrestlers in their staged violence than arena-fighting or private-party gladiators. But commercialized violence doesn’t mean sanitized violence. In Senate committee testimony two years ago, Duke public policy professor James Hamilton called television gunplay and the endless diet of violent images “a problem of pollution.” As he put it in his testimony, violence is used strategically to attract viewers—particularly television’s most valuable if vulnerable demographic, viewers between the ages of eighteen and thirty-four. “During the sweeps periods, the four major broadcast networks were much more likely to air movies that deal with murder, focus on tales of family crime, and feature family crime or murder stories based on real-life incidents. Nearly a third of network movies during sweeps periods dealt with murder.”
   It’s simplistic to argue that violence on television captures, rather than cultivates, violence in society, Hamilton told the committee. From analyzing data across the country on local news content, he found no tie-in between actual crime rates in a city and the percentage of lead stories or later-in-the-broadcast stories devoted to crime. Rather, he discovered what could fairly be called a warped decision-making process, whereby entertainment successes would define news decisions. “It was audience interest in crime, reflected by ratings for Cops in the market, that predicted the degree local news directors focused on crime in their newscasts. The stronger the audience interest in reality police-show programming, the more likely newscasts in an area were to focus on crime.”
   Hamilton was dismissive of the notion that televised images don’t influence behavior. “Social-science research indicates that violent images are more likely to be imitated if they go unpunished, show little pain or suffering, and involve attractive perpetrators,” he said in his testimony. “This describes the types of violence often used on television.”

   One of Hamilton’s colleagues in public policy, ITT/Sanford Professor Philip Cook, along with Jens Ludwig A.M. ’92, Ph.D. ’94, added to the social-science research base this fall. Cook has been conducting research on firearms and violence for more than twenty-five years.Ludwig is assistant professor of public policy at Georgetown University and affiliated expert of the Johns Hopkins Center for Gun Policy and Research. The two collaborated on the book Gun Violence: The Real Costs. 
They point out that some 200 million guns are in private hands in the United States; in 1997, 32,000 Americans died of gunshot wounds, and since 1965, more than one million people have been shot and killed—more than the number of Americans killed in all foreign wars combined during the twentieth century.
   “While gun assaults and unintentional injuries are concentrated to a remarkable degree among a narrow demographic slice of the population—younger black or Hispanic men—the rest of the population is by no means immune,” they write. “And in seeking to reduce our vulnerability, or paying our share of the public bill for responding to violence, the burden is widely shared.”
   According to their research, the annual burden of gun violence in America, including the costs of prevention, avoidance, amelioration, and injury, is about $100 billion, which averages to $1,000 per household. And that’s after taking account of the 40 percent drop in gun crime since 1993.
   Cook and Ludwig say that medical care accounts for only a small portion of the costs of gun violence. More than half of those who are killed by gunfire are suicides; typically they are physically or mentally ill, and so their remaining economic productivity would be low. The non-suicidal victims of gun violence, too, tend to be at the low end of the productivity scale. Male gun-homicide victims between the ages of eighteen and twenty-nine are half as likely as other men of the same age to be married, more than twice as likely to have dropped out of high school, and less likely to have worked during the last year.
   “Part of the motivation for writing the book was to take on a belief that you don’t hear in polite company, but that you certainly hear occasionally from National Rifle Association officials,” says Cook. “That’s a sort of ‘good riddance’ view that, despite the large numbers of deaths and injuries, gun violence is not a problem for this country. And the reason, they would say, is because the people who are getting killed are people who are not contributing to society. It became a very central issue for us to take on the ugly perspective, which remains influential and important, even though it’s not often expressed.”
   In their view, the more pernicious costs—though typically hidden costs—tear at the social fabric in other ways. The criminal-justice system feels the bite of the bullet appreciably. A hundred assault-related gunshot injuries will result in around twenty deaths, which is an uncomfortable fact of life, and death, in the gun-violence world. And homicide cases are far more expensive than prosecuting for aggravated assault; they have higher investigation, pretrial, and trial costs. The punishment costs, too, may be higher for convicted murderers since they are likely to be assigned to higher-security (and thus more costly) prisons.
   The criminal-justice system is hardly the only social institution under economic pressure from guns. Each of Chicago’s sixty-nine public high schools has a walk-through metal detector that costs between $2,500 and $3,000. Those costs mean fewer educational opportunities, and perhaps a diminished educational environment. While school-based metal detectors may enhance the safety of children, they “may also affect the morale of students and teachers and detract from the educational climate of the school,” the authors say. “Metal detectors may also directly affect student learning by taking away from class time, since security precautions increase the complexity of moving students in and out of classroom buildings, and draw resources away from other instructional-related items such as the hiring of additional teachers or new textbooks.”
   Gun violence may have an impact on the shape of American society in the largest sense, helping to define where we live and work. Urban housing markets are super-sensitive to crime rates. Gun-based crimes accelerate flight to the suburbs, reducing the vitality of communal life in the city, increasing traffic congestion outside the city, and changing patterns of work and tourism to the detriment of the city.
   Concluding that gun violence has redesigned the culture, Cook and Ludwig would like to redesign the gun. They endorse personalized (or “smart”) gun technology. That technology would make guns inoperable to unauthorized users, including despondent teenagers, curious children, or the criminals who commit around 500,000 gun thefts every year. They also support sentence add-ons for gun crimes; they document the drop-off in crime from such initiatives, even as they acknowledge the burden on taxpayers from expanding the prison population.
   But they present mixed evidence on the idea of a gun ban. After a 1976 ban on the purchase, sale, transfer, and possession of handguns in Washington, D.C., gun homicides and suicides decreased by nearly 25 percent. But the ban raises the prices of guns to law-abiding citizens who seek guns for self-protection. And it’s been argued that handgun restrictions may lead criminals to substitute long guns, which are more lethal than handguns. The two researchers are similarly cautious in discussing gun buybacks, through which officials purchase guns from citizens on a “no questions asked” basis. Such programs may have unintended consequences. Washington, D.C., paid $100 per gun as part of its 1999 buyback program, yet many of the gunsthat were turned in were estimated to have resale values of no more than $30. The difference enabled at least some owners to upgrade to newer and more lethal firearms.
   Cook and Ludwig place their greatest emphasis on the regulation of secondary-market gun sales, the source of the vast majority of the guns used in crime. They point out that 30 to 40 percent of all gun exchanges each year do not involve a licensed gun dealer, and so are almost completely exempt from existing background-check and other regulations. All secondary-market sales, they say, should go through licensed dealers, which would make them subject to the same regulations as sales of new guns.
   “What we’re saying in this book is that this is everybody’s problem, this is affecting everyone’s standard of living,” Cook says. “It’s affecting your freedom to live where you want to and how you want to.”

While the economic impact of gun violence extends to every American, gun owners face an additional, less tangible cost in terms of their social acceptability. Americans have a curious relationship with the gun—finding it a reasonable, if not romantic, attachment on the one hand, a repulsive fixation on the other. Ben Albers, a Duke graduate student in sociology, says gun owners are saddled with “a stigmatized identity.” He says he’s skeptical of the “cultural-deficiency” model that sees gun owners as social misfits, and so he’s drawing a more nuanced profile of them.
   Albers’ insights are informed by his own membership, however peripheral, in the culture he’s observing: “I’ve always been interested in target shooting, although I don’t hunt and I don’t think of gun ownership as a viable self-defense means. I don’t keep them around the house for protection; I’m basically just interested in punching holes in paper.” And now he may be punching holes in some stereotypes.
   For his research, Albers has been going to competitive shooting events, attending meetings of gun organizations, having conversations with gun enthusiasts, and even taking the class required for a concealed-weapon permit. “People may be surprised at the degree to which gun owners are almost indistinguishable from everyone else in the population, except for the fact that they have a particular hobby or a particular interest,” he says. He does note that gun shows draw overwhelmingly male crowds; the “issues of masculinity” involved in gun ownership may reflect the rough-and-tumble image of the frontiersman in our popular culture and our literary heritage.
   If they’re not themselves cut in the image of frontiersmen, gun owners are possessive of what they take to be their historic rights. As The New York Times reported in the aftermath of school shootings in California and Pennsylvania, “accepted wisdom in 
Washington holds that opponents of gun control are the most motivated single-issue voting bloc in the country.” Albers says, “I’m not sure if the average guy who hunts ducks is necessarily worried about U.N. helicopters flying overhead. But if there’s not a fundamental distrust of government, there is a concern that gun-control legislation is going to be crafted based on political expediency rather than effectiveness. A common criticism I heard of the recent administration was that they would tend to just sort of showboat and capitalize on mass shootings, not pursue law-enforcement solutions.”
   Even if they are socially indistinguishable in a broad sense, gun owners do show the sort of rituals that can define a subculture, Albers says. “Gun competitors have a very ritualized set of procedures for getting ready, preparing themselves mentally, preparing their equipment. In terms of informal shooting, whether that’s backyard plinking or going off to the range and banging around a bit, it would be interesting to think about ritual behavior. I’ve seen the same people every single Saturday at the range. Perhaps this is some weekly stress-release or affirmation. Certainly hunting season is highly ritualized; there are people who wait for hunting season to begin like they wait for Christmas.”
   If gun owners buy into a ritual belief, it’s the Second Amendment, broadly interpreted. Albers says that pro-gun feelings in the United States reflect “the absence of a clear sort of aristocracy, the absence of such a clearly defined class system. Part of the romance is our romance with democracy. It’s the idea that even the commoner can hunt on public lands. It’s the idea that—and this probably ties in to a certain interpretation of the Second Amendment—the citizenry could have access to the means of force and it wouldn’t be a monopoly in the hands of the state. I think a lot of Second Amendment constitutionalists who are gun supporters would point to this romantic ideal, this basic democratic and constitutional principle of emphasizing individual rights and individual protection from authority.”
   Yet it’s not clear that gun ownership is all that deeply embedded in American history. A controversial book published last fall, Michael Bellesiles’ Arming America: The Origins of a National Gun Culture, looks at probate records, the distribution of gunsmiths, merchants’ account books, and other evidence. Bellesiles documents a dearth of guns for the early militia and incompetence in using them. He ends up disputing the widely held notion (even by historians) that Americans, from colonial days, have been armed to the teeth.
   A historian at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Don Higginbotham Ph.D. ’59, says, “In the colonial period and in the Revolution, it was not uncommon for a high percentage of the militia to turn out without guns. Moreover, as Michael Bellesiles says, the colonial and state governments not infrequently bought guns for men to use. In 1794, Secretary of War Henry Knox reported that of 450,000 men in the state militias, only about 100,000 owned arms.”

Historians may be revising notions of the pervasiveness of gun ownership, but there’s little impetus to revise Second Amendment validation of gun ownership. The Second Amendment reads: “A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.” When he looks at the amendment, Duke constitutional scholar William Van Alstyne sees a rhetorical structure that’s not easily unpacked. The amendment opens by asserting a need for a well-regulated militia; later it declares that the right secured by the amendment is not (or not just) the right of a state, or of the United States, to provide a well-regulated militia, but rather that there’s a people’s right to arms. And the Supreme Court hasn’t helped much in the unpacking: The Second Amendment is “missing in action,” in Van Alstyne’s phrase, as case law. (The same was true of the First Amendment, he notes, through 1904.) 
   Van Alstyne’s take on the Second Amendment follows from the assumption that a “well regulated Militia” is a reference to the ordinary citizenry, not to regular armed soldiers as members of some standing army under congressional control. It’s irrelevant, then, that a trained militia may have passed from the scene. The amendment, he says, “does not disparage, much less does it subordinate, ‘the right of the people to keep and bear arms.’ To the contrary, it expressly embraces that right and indeed it erects the very scaffolding of a free state upon that guarantee. It derives its definition of a well-regulated militia in just this way for a ‘free State’: The militia, to be well-regulated, is a militia to be drawn from just such people (i.e., people with a right to keep and bear arms) rather than from some other source (i.e., from people without rights to keep and bear arms).” 
   Were the Second Amendment a mere states’-rights provision, says Van Alstyne, it would appear in a place appropriate to that purpose—that is, as a neighbor to the Tenth Amendment, which reserves to the states powers not delegated to the federal government. And, it would reflect states’-rights language—speculatively, “Congress shall make no law impairing the right of each state to maintain such well regulated militia as it may deem necessary to its security as a free state.” But “it neither reads in any such fashion nor is it situated even to imply such a thought,” he says. “Instead, it is cast in terms that track the provisions in the neighboring personal-rights clauses of the Bill of Rights.” 
   Van Alstyne observes that a broad interpretation of the Second Amendment has deep historical antecedent
. In his definitive 1765 legal treatise, English jurist William Blackstone outlined “primary” natural rights, such as the free enjoyment of personal liberty, and closely related “auxiliary” natural rights, among which he included access to courts of law, the right of petition, and “the right of having and using arms for self-preservation and defense.” 
   In a Duke Law Journal essay, Van Alstyne draws parallels between the Second Amendment and the First Amendment. Neither amendment is absolute in its provisions. “It is not the case that one may say whatever one wants and however one wants, wherever one wants, and whenever one likes.” A person may be held to account for an abuse of freedom, for example, by being held liable for publishing false claims about the nutritional value of food offered for public sale. “Neither is one’s right to keep and bear arms absolute. It may fairly be questionable, for example, whether the type of arms one may have a ‘right to keep’ consistent with the Second Amendment extend to a howitzer. It may likewise be questionable whether the ‘arms’ one does have a ‘right to keep’ are necessarily arms one also may presume to ‘bear’ wherever one wants, e.g., in courtrooms or in public schools.” 
   Both amendments have social costs attached to them, he says. The costs of the Second Amendment may amount to the billions of dollars, and the associated opportunity costs, charted in the book by Cook and Ludwig. But there are costs to the First Amendment. It may allow a cunning politician to come to power by false representations, or it may allow an assault of “hate speech” directed against target groups. Van Alstyne wouldn’t see in such scenarios a rationalization for repeal of either amendment. He says the social costs attached to drinking may exceed those attached to guns. But how great were the costs introduced by Prohibition? 
   That same parallel between amendments makes Van Alstyne wary of the idea of licensing firearms. Part of the history of the First Amendment was a repudiation of a licensing system, he says. Licensing came to England in the fifteenth century with the advent of the printing press. And the monarchy shortly put itself into the licensing business. “The idea of running off copy after copy put printing within the means of the private citizen. Things in print were much more dangerous than things spoken. Why? Because the copy is anonymous; it can go from hand to hand, and you don’t know who the author is, you can’t track it down. So the printing press is considered as socially perplexing and potentially as dangerous in seditious hands, in criminal hands, as weapons are today.”
   Van Alstyne would be reluctant, too, to endorse some local gun laws—particularly laws geared to charging gun manufacturers with contributory negligence when, for example, there’s a pattern of the manufacturer’s product being used for crime. He notes that the Cook-Ludwig book conceivably could produce new gun-control initiatives, that the possibility of such initiatives invariably brings an increase in gun sales, and that some of the sales might fuel crime. So by a certain logic, however twisted, Cook and Ludwig could find contributory-negligence charges thrown in their direction. 

The idea of contributing to containing violence was one of the sparks behind the founding, just a couple of years ago, of the Fast Track Project, part of Duke’s Center for Child and Family Policy. Ken Dodge Ph.D. ’78, the center’s director, says “there’s not a single route to becoming chronically violent,” but that there are obvious risk factors—growing up in a dangerous neighborhood and in an impoverished family, experiencing child abuse or neglect, being socially marginalized or victimized by other children. “One of the things that we’ve learned is that peers, family, neighborhood, schools, and the media can all contribute to chronic violence. We also know that intervention at only one of those levels is unlikely to have an enduring effect; the other contributing factors will overwhelm what’s going on. So if we only intervene directly with the child in improving his or her social skills or academic skills, it may have a short-term positive effect. But over time that neighborhood influence will come back or that physically abusing parent figure will have an effect.” 
   That interest in multiple influences forms the premise for Fast Track. Now involving 450 children (along with a control group), the project is working in Durham, Nashville, Seattle, and rural Pennsylvania. The project begins with a risk asessment in kindergarten, and it continues with integrated prevention activities from the first grade through the tenth grade—parent training, child training in social skills, support for the parent-child relationship, tutoring in academic subjects, visits to the home, and the building of partnerships between home and school. 
   Early intervention is important, Dodge says. “One of the attractive features we find about intervening at age six or so is that we can identify the high-risk children. But their development is not a completed deal. There are still opportunities for change for these kids, opportunities for success socially and academically. First-grade children are easy to relate to, and they’re searching and wanting an adult to care for them and worry about them. The theory is that when they come upon adolescent problems, we’ll be there to help them out, and the normal adolescent resistance might be less because of the sustained relationship.” 
   With fractured families, helping out kids involves bigger burdens. “The most difficult parents to reach have been those who are substance-abusing addicts, whose lives are just destroyed,” Dodge says. “Outside of that, we’ve been able to approach most families successfully by employing intervention staff who can relate to families, who come from the same neighborhood, who might be the same ethnicity, who talk the same language. 
   “It’s also the case that even the most troubled families still have hopes for their first-grade child—that their first-grade child will grow up to graduate from high school, stay off drugs, stay out of jail. Virtually every mother that we’ve encountered has those hopes for her six-year-old child.” 
   Those children who have been receiving the intervention show progress relative to the control group in areas that social scientists consider markers of good adjustment, such as social cognitive skills, problem-solving skills, and emotion control. They’re more socially accepted and less aggressive toward peers. At school they’re doing better academically, and at home they’re interacting better with parents.

That would be good news to Steven Vaslef, director of trauma services and head trauma surgeon at Duke’s Trauma Center. In early March, he was reviewing a just-finished annual trauma registry for Duke. And with the rest of the country, he was following accounts of a fifteen-year-old boy’s being charged with killing two classmates and wounding thirteen at a school outside San Diego. 
   Vaslef’s registry shows that 20 to 25 percent of those treated in his units suffer from “penetrating trauma,” a category that includes gunshot wounds and stabbings. That represents a few hundred patients every year. Some of the wounds are to isolated extremities, and they can be repaired relatively easily. “Some of them—obviously, gunshot wounds to the head or the chest—carry high mortality.” A considerable number of the patients come from outlying hospitals that aren’t equipped to deal with trauma patients. And some keep showing up, caught up as they are in gang-related turf disputes or drug wars. “Trauma is a recurring disease,” as he puts it. 
   At least in Durham, he says, he doesn’t see the assault-rifle use and multiple gunshot wounds that he saw in his previous job, at Chicago’s Cook County Hospital. 
   A colleague of Vaslef, Claudia McCormick, trauma program manager for the Trauma Center, participates in initiatives devoted to gun safety for schoolchildren. One program brings kids to Duke for a day. They watch an ambulance come roaring in with a mock victim and talk with EMS technicians, and they visit the main trauma room, where nurses in the emergency department talk with them. They are even taken to the morgue. McCormick goes to third-grade classrooms, where she talks about what guns are supposed to be used for and how they’re to be avoided. An accompanying video, featuring a kid-friendly “Eddie the Eagle” character, is supplied by the National Rifle Association. She admits that the effectiveness of such programs is “very limited.”
   “I had a third-grade student raise his hand in the middle of class and say, ‘I know how to make a bullet fire without having a gun.’ And he promptly described how to do it. Are kids familiar with guns? Well, this was from a third-grader.” 
   For his part, Vaslef says ruefully, “There’s absolute job security in what I do.” Not far from his office, a visitor can spot a sign posted on a laboratory door. “The more traffic you have, the more traffic accidents,” it reads. Somehow the message seems sadly relevant.

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